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November 13, 2012
Finding Space
Precedent for the Lakers and D'Antoni

by Kevin Pelton

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You won't find spacing in any box score, or even in the more advanced statistics we track on this site, but it's there running through everything NBA teams do on both ends of the floor. And it's critical to the offensive system Mike D'Antoni is bringing to L.A., which is predicated on the spread pick-and-roll that his success with the Phoenix Suns helped spread throughout the NBA.

As he takes over for Mike Brown at midseason, whenever that actually happens following knee surgery, D'Antoni will inherit a Lakers roster built very differently than his Suns teams that led the league in Offensive Rating each of his four full years at the helm. With a 7-foot power forward (Pau Gasol) and a small forward listed at 260 pounds (Metta World Peace), these Lakers are designed around size and strength rather than the speed and skill that were staples in Phoenix. The Lakers have played at an average pace thus far, and D'Antoni's famous "Seven Seconds or Less" philosophy of transition offense doesn't figure to translate to an aging starting lineup.

D'Antoni also faces a distinct lack of shooting. Despite a hot start beyond the arc from Kobe Bryant (13-of-30, 43.3 percent), these Lakers have made just 33.1 percent of their three-point attempts, putting them 18th in the league. In the modern NBA, there's no easier way to create spacing than spreading the floor with a number of three-point threats. Barring some kind of unlikely trade, that option simply isn't available to D'Antoni.

Even with all those concerns, I'm still optimistic about D'Antoni's chances of building an elite offense. For one, there's too much talent here for the Lakers to be almost anything else. Playing without Steve Nash and adjusting to Brown's short-lived Princeton-style offense haven't stopped the Lakers from ranking sixth in the NBA in Offensive Rating. Ultimately, talent is much more important than system to determining an offense's performance. When it comes to assessing credit for Phoenix's success, I consider Nash much more important than D'Antoni, as reflected by the fact that the Suns led the league in Offensive Rating the two seasons after D'Antoni left for New York, albeit playing a similar style under former assistant Alvin Gentry. It wasn't until Amar'e Stoudemire left and Nash began to show his age that Phoenix slipped offensively.

Beyond that, there's evidence of D'Antoni succeeding with lineups that do not conform to the Seven Seconds or Less stereotype. While D'Antoni was a pioneer in the use of Shawn Marion as a stretch four--then termed, less generally, a "Phoenix four"--the Suns also used more conventional frontcourts at times. In 2006-07, Stoudemire regularly played alongside veteran center Kurt Thomas. The duo played nine percent of the team's minutes, per 82games.com, and outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 48 minutes. Phoenix actually scored slightly more frequently when Stoudemire was paired with Thomas than other teammates.

The closest comparison to this year's Lakers came after the 2008 trade deadline, when the Suns famously sent Marion to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal. The polarizing move has been written off as a failure, but the numbers suggest the Stoudemire-O'Neal frontcourt was actually quite successful. Per NBA.com/Stats, lineups with both players on the floor averaged 117.0 points per 100 possessions and outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions. Again, both marks are better than what Stoudemire managed with other teammates (111.3, and +6.3).

During D'Antoni's last stand in Phoenix, those Suns were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs in five games. Don't blame O'Neal, however. BasketballValue.com shows the Stoudemire-O'Neal frontcourt outscoring the Spurs by 8.2 points per 100 possessions. That series was lost when D'Antoni went to his short bench, which prominently featured players like Gordan Giricek and Brian Skinner.

The comparisons between the 2008 Suns and this year's Lakers go beyond just a frontcourt of two All-Stars who are most comfortable in the paint. Phoenix had Grant Hill at small forward, and Boris Diaw at the position when Hill missed time during the playoffs due to injury. Both players shot 31.7 percent from three-point range, and they combined for 46 triples. While Hill was much more effective a step inside the arc, D'Antoni should be able to get as much floor spacing from World Peace.

Of course, the 2007-08 Suns still shot 41.7 percent from three-point range after trading for O'Neal. Nearly all that outside shooting came from three players: Nash, Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa. The Lakers have one player with that kind of three-point track record: Nash. Bryant is a 33.7 percent career shooter. Steve Blake has hit 38.7 percent of his threes, and Jodie Meeks 36.8 percent, though both have been near or above the 40 percent mark in the past.

Certainly, D'Antoni will do what he can to get as much shooting on the floor as possible. DNP-CDs for Meeks are a thing of a past, and we've probably seen the last of Antawn Jamison at small forward. While it makes the frontcourt rotation more difficult, putting Jamison at his usual power forward spot produced better results for both him and the team for interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff over the weekend.

Still, those old Phoenix teams remind that three-pointers aren't the only way to create spacing. Gasol has enough midrange chops to handle the Kurt Thomas role at times, as he did in a slightly different manner within the Princeton. And Gasol and Howard are nearly interchangeable in the Stoudemire-O'Neal roles. What made the pick-and-roll effective for the 2008 Suns was that defenders were wary of leaving O'Neal at the rim, giving Stoudemire the opportunity to operate 1-on-1 as a roll man. Howard, who played in an offense that was conceptually similar in Orlando, is an excellent roll man and can also step in for O'Neal as a finisher. Same with Gasol, who shares Stoudemire's ability to put the ball on the floor after receiving a pass from Nash.

There will be other questions for D'Antoni to deal with. The Lakers' second unit and their defense may well prove more important than the offense to determining how the team fares. There, the example of the O'Neal-Stoudemire frontcourt--which rated no better or worse defensively than Phoenix's average overall defense--is not quite as encouraging. But when it comes to the kind of offensive fireworks the Lakers are expecting to get from the D'Antoni hire, I think there is enough space for him to succeed.

For a comprehensive guide to the 2012-13 season, check out Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, now available in .PDF and paperback formats.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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